Crazy – and charming – travelers

Travel has been sort of crazy this week. But there is some sign of charming behavior out there.

There’s the saga of the drunken, raving passenger on Frontier Airlines who was duct-taped to his seat after assaulting and groping flight attendants.

At first, Frontier Airlines suspended the flight attendants involved. The reason? They had not followed the proper procedures. That didn’t fly with the Association of Flight Attendants – and many others. But the airline later came to its senses and said it now supports the crew members and will pay them.

On the other hand…

Not all people on airplanes and in airports are crazy. Some are just charming.

Giveaways for Southwest Airlines’ 50th Anniversary

June 18 marks 50 years since Southwest Airlines flew its first commercial flight and to celebrate the airline is giving away prizes through June 18 and celebrating all month long.

The Southwest Airlines Sweepstakes

Through June 18, anyone can enter the sweepstakes here for a chance to win prizes that include 50, 100, 250, 500, 1000, or 50,000 Rapid Rewards bonus points.

We’ve been entering everyday, but so far we’re not a winner.

Be sure to enter the sweepstakes on June 18. That’s the day Southwest has dubbed “Wanna Get Away Day,” when the prizes – and the number of prizes awarded – balloon considerably.

On that day, you could win up to a million rapid rewards points, a $500 Southwest Airlines gift card, and a Companion Pass that lets you take someone with you every time you fly on Southwest Airlines.

The Party Goes On All Month

In addition to the sweepstakes, Southwest Airlines is hosting pop-up photo opportunities in 24 airport gate areas and rolling out Heart Carts full of swag and giveaways in more than 40 of its locations.

Southwest Airlines fans who want to celebrate with some swag can shop the Southwest Airlines online store for retro merchandise that includes a Retro Build-A-Bear wearing the airline’s original hotpants uniform.

Passenger volumes picking up. So is satisfaction with airlines

While the U.S. Department of Transportation logged a record high number of complaints from airline passengers in 2020 – predominantly about ticket refunds – satisfaction with airlines now seems to be on the rise.  

That is according to the 2021 North American Airline Satisfaction Study from J.D. Power. The data for the study covers August 2020 through March 2021.

The results show that even with all the challenges the pandemic put forth for airlines in the past year, satisfaction is up by 27 points (to 819 on a 1,000-point scale), year over year.

“The airline industry adapted to a most unusual year by simplifying ticketing processes, waiving change fees and baggage fees which were key to persuading people to fly during the pandemic,” said Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power.

Flight crews on the front lines

The study finds that overall passenger satisfaction with flight crews increases by 26 points. This as flight attendants and pilots were tasked with explaining and enforcing many new health and safety measures during the pandemic.

High marks for no change fees

During the pandemic, most major airlines offered travel waivers that allowed passengers to change or cancel tickets without typical penalties. “Passengers responded favorably,” the study finds, “driving a 47-point increase in customer satisfaction with cost and fees.”

Airline rankings

Delta Air Lines ranks highest in customer satisfaction in this report, with a score of 860, the first time it has ranked highest since 1995.

Southwest Airlines (856) ranks second and Alaska Airlines (850) ranks third.

Here is chart with more rankings.

Travel Tidbits: smuggled finches, Iceland adventures, middle seats, and more

There does indeed seem to be an uptick in travel and travel news. Here’s some of what we spotted today.

Delta Air Lines will stop blocking middle seat starting May 1. They were last US airline still blocking middle seats.

Delta also announced on Tuesday that it is extending the expiration date on travel credits and bringing snacks back starting April 14. Passengers flying Delta One or First Class on select domestic coast-to-coast flights will see hot food options return in early June. First Class customers on some other U.S. routes will be served boxed meals beginning in early July.

Alaska Airlines now part of oneworld airline alliance

As of March 31 Alaska Airlines becomes the newest member of the oneworld airline alliance. That means that “as a Mileage Plan member, you can earn Alaska miles on all 14 member airlines when you fly to as many as 1,000 destinations in more than 170 countries and territories,” the airline said in a statement.

The new membership also means the benefit enjoyed by Alaska’s elite flyers will be honored on other member airlines.

“You’re an MVP Gold? Without doing a thing, you now also have Sapphire tier status in oneworld (75K fliers are Emerald and MVPs are Ruby in the alliance),” the airline notes, and, “Depending on your tier status, oneworld travel priveleges include priority check-in, access to more than 650 international first and business class lounges, preferred boarding, fast track through security, priority baggage benefits and more.”

Hair Rollers harbor finches

People try to smuggle things – foods, animals, drugs, etc – through airports all the time. U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently spotted a guy who was trying to 29 finches in these hair rollers.

Iceland is hot right now

If Iceland wasn’t high on your travel list before now, the volcanic eruption going on now should be grabbing your attention. Another reason to make plans to head that way: this package offer from Icelandair available to book through April 13 for travel from 10 US cities. Along with roundtrip airfare and three nights hotel, with breakfast, vaccinated travelers get a visit to the new Sky Lagoon, a Northern Lights Board Tour and a one-day pass for the Hop On Hop Off city sightseeing bus.

Do you know where your pandemic flight credits are?

[This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News]

When the pandemic hit, Vanessa Mumford-Minshull of Campbell, CA scrambled to cancel a multi-leg, multi-airline European trip for four people. She asked for refunds. Airlines automatically issued vouchers. “I sent email saying, ‘I don’t want this,’ but got no answer,” says Mumford-Minshull, who spent days calling, writing, and documenting her efforts before finally getting refund help thanks to her credit card company. “With the vouchers, there were too many unknowns due to COVID-19,” she said, “I could have lost almost $4,000.”

Millions of other travelers who accepted or were issued travel credits or vouchers are pulling the emails out now that a year has gone by, vaccination rates are on the rise, and cities are reopening to visitors. Many hopeful flyers are discovering their credits will expire before they get to use them. Others will find that the vouchers have restrictions that make them difficult to use

Besides dashed travel hopes, there is a great deal of money at stake. Companies still deliberating when to restart non-essential business travel may be sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars of unused travel credits, notes corporate travel management company TripActions. And airlines, which recently received billions of dollars in a third round of federal pandemic funding relief,  are holding billions in unused vouchers.

“I can say with confidence there are more outstanding travel vouchers right now than have existed ever before, given the number of trips that got disrupted simultaneously because of the pandemic,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.

What to do to if you have pandemic travel credit or flight vouchers

If you accepted or received airline travel credits or vouchers for a trip canceled due the pandemic, experts say check the expiration dates right away and start reading the fine print. If the expiration date has not passed and you do not have travel plans just yet, call and ask the airline to extend the date. (It is worth a try even if the expiration date has just passed). Given the Centers for Disease Control’s advice to continue avoiding non-essential travel and shifting COVID-19 hotspots, airlines may be willing to do this.

“For those consumers who have unused vouchers, it’s critical that they stay on top of this and be aware of the expiration dates,” says William McGee, Aviation Adviser to Consumer Reports, which logged more 700 consumer complaints and stories about vouchers and refunds in less than a week.

To try to help travelers figure out their options, McGee says he did a deep dive into policies being offered by ten U.S. carriers and found that the best and most transparent policy was from Allegiant Air, which set the expiration for its travel vouchers at two years from the initial date of purchase. He says other policies “are confusing, and the expirations can vary greatly based on date of booking, date of travel, date of cancellation,” and other factors.

Here are links to the current rules and policies of Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines. You will notice for example, that American Airlines has 3 types of travel credit – Flight Credit, Travel Vouchers, and Trip Credit – and that United Airlines’ travel certificates are now good for up to two years after the date they were issued.

Some other tips to keep in mind

While you should be able to use your travel credits or vouchers to book the same or a different itinerary, you will be shopping for your new tickets at new prices. And, as travel picks up and pent-up demand for travel increases, you may need to throw extra money in the pot to get the flights you want.

If you know where you want to go but are not sure when you will feel comfortable flying, the experts at Scott’s Cheap Travel suggests you use your travel credits to book a flight on an airline that is still offering free changes on all fares. “While you’ll have to pay the difference if the fare rises, “you’ll be able to change dates without an extra fee and you won’t lose the value of your voucher.”

Beyond that, “our biggest advice,” says McGee of Consumer Reports, “is to stay persistent.” This was Consumer Reports’ advice last year when advising consumers about airline refunds at the start of the pandemic and the same holds true with vouchers a year in, says McGee. “It may take four or five or even more emails, calls, and letters,” but the success stories come from those who are persistent.